Joanne Palmer: Navigating grief
May 13, 2017
There are a dozen ways to get from O'Hare airport to my childhood home in Evanston, but I only know one. The directions I know are as familiar to me as the sound of my son's voice and start with a panicked cry,
"Kids, kids, get me out of here!"
My mother panicked every time we left the airport parking lot. She didn't need to shout — she drove a purple Chevy Malibu, and it was easy to hear her from anywhere in the car. There was no need to panic — she had traveled to and from O'Hare hundreds of times.
"Get me out of here!" was her way of saying, "Look for an exit sign in the parking lot."
After driving around the parking garage a few times until we found the exit, we barely had time to exhale before the next instructions came echoing through the car.
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"Look for the Marlboro man."
Our next navigation point, a massive billboard, stood at the entrance of the expressway. I think the expressway is 294N, but I don't know for sure. She rarely referred to the numbers or names of anything. She always referred to the story.
"Here's where your brother dropped the shovel on his toe. You could make a left there or keep going."
"Drive past the restaurant where you sprained your ankle when you were a waitress and they made you finish your shift, remember?"
"If you go past the animal hospital where we took the dog after she swallowed the fish hook, you've gone too far."
Now, several years after my mother's death, as I leave O'Hare, I rely on Siri to get me out of the parking garage and direct me to the expressway. The Marlboro man is long gone too — a dark, somber billboard has replaced him, but I don't want to look at it too long for fear of missing the turn.
I turn where Siri instructs me to turn, but it's not her voice I want to hear but my mother's:
"East is towards the lake; West isn't."
"Call when you pass the store where you use to sell shoes, Nordstrom's is there now."
I stop in front of my childhood home — the address is the password I use to log into my work computer — and stare at it. It's green instead of white, and our old garage is now a home office. But the uneven cement sidewalk leading up to the house is still there — the one my mother lined with luminaries to greet me when I arrived home on my birthday — as is the mailbox — the one she used to decorate whenever I received a letter from a far away boyfriend.
Siri matter-of-factly tells me to turn right in 100 yards, but I don't want to turn right; I want to make a U-turn and go back to the house and find my mother waiting inside.
Waiting to hear my how my flight was, who I sat next to and if I ordered a drink. Waiting to see what I am wearing; how long my hair is. Wine glasses would be chilled; the cheese and crackers would be out.
"Tell me everything," she'd say. "Leave nothing out."
And that's just it. Nothing — the dribs and drabs of everyday life — was everything to my mother. Did I find the right dress to wear to a wedding? Did I get the vacuum cleaner to work? Did the cut on my finger heal?
When you lose your mother, there are no substitutes. Siri can give directions, friends can listen, but it's not the same. Who else will tell you, "Never put warm food on cold plates. Expensive shoes are worth it. Cheap wine will give you a hangover. Never buy used appliances."
She was right about the appliances. I once bought a used washer, and, on the very first cycle, thick grease ruined my clothes. She was right about so much.
There is no road map for grief. No detours or shortcuts.
Grief makes cartographers out of us all; the coordinates of pain and loss inevitably point us in new directions, and we stake our claim in a foreign landscape, strange and barren without the ones we love.